Film Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Sequel to the 1995 fantasy film sends an expert cast through a jungle journey as fun as it is exciting.
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With two of Hollywood's biggest stars and a brainy but family-friendly script, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is poised to cash in on holiday viewers who can't get into Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Chris Van Allsburg's wonderful children's book from 1981 became a middling Robin Williams vehicle in 1995, followed by a TV series and videogames. A sequel more than 20 years later may not sound promising, but Welcome to the Jungle works much better than expected thanks to its generous spirit and hard-working cast.

The script flips Van Allsburg's original premise, which brought the dangerous characters of a board game to life in a suburban home. Now, four kids are pulled into a videogame, where they must search for clues and succeed in a quest to return to their lives.

The movie's best twist is that the high-schoolers turn into Jumanji avatars. Nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes hero Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); self-absorbed mean girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) turns into rotund cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black); Spencer's jock friend Fridge (Ser’darius Blain) is now sidekick Franklin "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart); and loner Martha (Morgan Turner) ends up mankiller Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).

It takes a while to get the kids (who meet during detention) into their new bodies, and for director Jake Kasdan to explain the rules of Jumanji (mostly watch out for animals and Bobby Cannavale's villain Van Pelt). Since it's a videogame, some characters exist only to plant clues (in verse). The avatars have a few lives to spare, making their encounters with rhinos and mambas a little less fraught.

Eventually Jumanji settles into chases and battles that are legitimately nerve-wracking, broken up by scenes typical for the genre. The avatars' visit to a native bazaar is just like the shopping trips in Tomb Raider and Valerian. The difference here is the game’s avatars are still figuring out who they are.

Johnson is a delight as an insecure teen in a weightlifter's body, and his winning chemistry with Hart from Central Intelligence remains intact. Hart's motormouth asides show why he is such an admired comic. Gillan does a hilarious bit trying to flirt with bad guys before employing her avatar's "dance fighting" skills. And Black is a revelation, finding the bewildered heart of a social-media showoff without camping up her part.

The characters have a certain self-awareness, but mostly avoid irony and snarkiness. They complain about their bodies, their costumes, even their genders, and can't stand the clichés that unfold before them. One of Jumanji's real pleasures is how it delivers exactly what they fear the most—the bimbo clothes, the deadly booby-traps, the snarling threats—only to top their expectations.

Like a good family film, everyone here has a lesson to learn—including viewers, who are gently reminded about tolerance. The action scenes are satisfying, and the effects fun, if not earthshaking. But the best thing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle may be how well-crafted it is.

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